Dead.

A reflection for Good Friday on What Darkness Brings To Light

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

John 19:38-42

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

We are unable to marvel at Christ’s compassion as he pleads with the Father to forgive those who have treated him so unjustly, so horrendously. We cannot cheer for the criminal who sticks up for Jesus and so earns himself a place in Paradise. We are not moved by the agony of God-with-us thirsting, breathing shallower and shallower, questioning why he has been forsaken.

For he is dead.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes because it is nearly Passover and there are preparations to be made: houses to be tidied, meals to be prepared, tables to be set.

But isn’t that always the case with death? The rub, the salt in the wound; the final, unbearable agony on to of the already excruciating loss? How quickly life moves on ….

The flowers fade. The cards and calls stop coming. The last lasagne or chicken-pot-pie comes out of the freezer, is defrosted, and eaten. People get busy and conversations become awkward as you get the sense from what is not said that you should be moving on; when, really, its as a result of the guilt that they feel for not being there for you as they had intended that makes others unable to look you in the eye.

So you keep yourself busy – through the first Christmas, first birthday, first anniversary. But you realise just how many firsts there actually are: the first holiday that you don’t take your usual camping trip, the first time you sit down at your favourite coffee shop alone, the first time something funny happens and you start telling it to someone who’s no longer there ….

So you’re stuck, as the firsts turns to seconds or thirds and the loss really doesn’t get much easier and you discover that a wave of tired can overwhelm you for no particular reason at all.

Death is final. Irrevocable. And – for those who loved its victim with all their heart – changes life completely.

Our Gospel reading today puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead – and with him, the hope of the world.

The spectacle is over.

And the crowd is hurrying away from the darkness of it all in case some taint should linger and be carried home with them.

And yet, it is in the darkest place that something quite unexpected, quite amazing happens.

In the absence of Jesus’s male disciples, two other men step up to deal with Jesus’s body: Joseph of Arimathea was a rich man and a member of the Jewish ruling council, who had vehemently opposed the decision to have Christ crucified; and Nicodemus, a Pharisee and member of the rabbinic tribunal who we remember for that very confusing conversation about needing to be born again in order to enter the kingdom of heaven.

Both were secret disciples. As members of the religious and political parties that shared power with their Roman rules, both stood to lose much by aligning themselves with the crucified King of the Jews:

  • their position,
  • their standing in the community,
  • their creature comforts,
  • their freedom,
  • and, maybe even their lives.

But in the gravest of moments, at the darkest of times, when everyone else had abandoned the lifeless, useless, blood-stained body of Jesus and just a small handful of weeping women stood watch over it from a distance, wondering what to do next in the face of such an unexpected, unjust, tragic death – Joseph and Nicodemus declare their love publicly and practically as they petition Pilate for Jesus’s body, prepare it for burial with a lavish amount of myrrh and sandalwood, and lay it (as Isaiah had prophesied) in a rich man’s tomb. Tradition suggests that this may even have been Joseph of Arimathea’s own tomb – freshly hewn into the cliff of a nearby, private garden.

Through the darkness shines
their courage,
their generosity,
their faith,
their love,
their commitment.

Yet I can’t help but wonder if they would ever have identified themselves as followers of Jesus if the story had not ended in this exact way. Without the darkness, would their relationship with Jesus ever have come to light? Without the tragedy and injustice of such a death, would the world have been prepared for Sunday’s truth: that Christ has come to life?

Today, our Gospel reading puts us at the very end of the crucifixion story.

Christ is dead.

The spectacle is over.

The dreams of his disciples lie in rubble and ruin.

And the crowd is hurrying back to their homes …

… homes which are lonely and quiet because there is no one else left in the family …

… homes which are fearful and bleak because daddy is a mean drunk or mommy’s new boyfriend is looking at me in an inappropriate way …

… homes which are filthy or bare because there’s not enough time or not enough money …

… homes which are cold and uncomfortable because there’s no love left there anymore …

… homes which are prison for the very old, the very ill, the very depressed …

… homes which aren’t really homes, just a rough, warm spot somewhere out of the wind and the rain ….

This Good Friday, as we encounter the courage, the generosity, the faith, the love, and the commitment of Joseph and Nicodemus in a place of darkness and despair – the place of Death – I wonder what their story may bring to light in our own lives and in our own understanding of what true discipleship might require in this dark world
into which Jesus came,
and suffered on the cross,
and died.

Who will carry the light in the darkness?

Prayer

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
every home a safe haven,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

Amen.

What darkness brings to light

A service for Good Friday

Opening notes

On Easter Sunday we focus on coming to life, in and through the power of the risen Christ. But in order for us to come to life, we must first sit with the darkness of death. This service is a solemn space in which people can grieve the suffering of Jesus for the sake of our sin and remember their own losses. It has many elements that would be found in a funeral/memorial service.

Despite having a number of children in my children in the congregation for whom I have written this service, I decided not to have our usual time of conversation. I want them to experience the silence and the ritual of this moment. At their table in the front of the sanctuary, however, I have prepared a space for them in which they can discover the theme of the service in their own way: black cardboard, metallic sharpies (markers), a box of different crosses from a Godly Play lesson, and my own messy example in which I have drawn freehand nine different imitations of those crosses that spoke to me – some overlapping. After the service, these will be put in the sanctuary windows. The gold and silvers literally shine on the black background!

Metallic markers on black cardboard.

I have also incorporated a silent “pilgrimage” to the large metal cross on the church grounds. I have pre-cut lengths of red ribbon which congregants will be able to tie to it as a symbol of their confession. It will also be visible to members of the community from the shopping centre across the road.

The lament

This is the night
where violence is the victor
as ambitious men measure a man’s worth in silver
and fearful men turn their backs on a friend,
and powerful men trade what is right for whatever keeps them popular.

This is the day
when the sun refuses to shine 
on the tear-stained cheeks of those who bear witness to such cruelty
or the bewildered faces of those who can’t take back their wrongs
or the hardened hearts already moving on to their next bit of entertainment.

This is the time
in which God goes ahead
into the nightmare landscape of pain and suffering,
into the breach between divine love and human sinfulness,
into the dark,
into the deep,
into death.

Out of the depths we cry to you:
Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

TiS 350 There is a green hill far away (verses 1-4)

Old Testament reading: Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

As it was prophesied in the book of Isaiah, so has it come to pass:

See, my servant will act wisely;
he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
and his form marred beyond human likeness—
so he will sprinkle many nations,
and kings will shut their mouths because of him.

For what they were not told, they will see,
and what they have not heard, they will understand.
Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?

He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
for the transgression of my people he was punished.

He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
nor was any deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.

After he has suffered,
he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
and he will bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
and was numbered with the transgressors.

For he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.

TiS 356 Here hangs a man discarded

(sung to the tune of O sacred head most wounded – 339 – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oza5iOPtQkA)

Pilgrimage of confession/pain

The prayers of confession are done as part of a silent pilgrimage to the cross (located in my instance on the outside of the building). Everyone is given a red ribbon as they walk out of the sanctuary to tie to the cross as a symbol of laying their sins on the Intercessor. 

After some silence, a prayer in the face of tragic death is offered (based on some of the language and imagery of Psalm 22). This will connect with people on two levels: the first, as a lament of the injustice of the cross and expression of the questions may have about whether it was really necessary; the second – of which we need to be aware – is at the more personal level of recent or unresolved grief for those whose loved ones have died.

Sovereign Lord,
our great God of compassion,
as we gather around the cross of Christ
we can hardly believe what happened.
Our hearts are shaken with sorrow,
our certainty with disbelief,
for a life so full of promise has been taken
and we do not understand.

Cradle us in our confusion,
meet us in our anger,
contain our shock and sadness,
bear the questions that have no answers,
ease our regret and shame.

We must believe that you do not despise our cries of deep despair –
that You do not look the other way when we are in pain.
You are the first responder to our sufferings:
let us remember that “it is finished”
that we might overflow with life again.
In Jesus’ name.

Chorus: Amazing love (what love is this)  

Gospel reading: John 19:38-42

After these things, Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, though a secret one because of his fear of the Jews, asked Pilate to let him take away the body of Jesus. Pilate gave him permission; so he came and removed his body. 

Nicodemus, who had at first come to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, weighing about a hundred pounds. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews. 

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there. 

Prayer of invocation

O God for whom the darkness is as dazzling as light,
You are our very present help in times of trouble.
With You we have nothing to fear
and in Your hope we place our trust.
In the mystery of life and death before us,
speak to us now Your eternal words of life.
Amen.

Guided meditation:
what darkness brings to light  

I am amazed how in the worst of times, we sometimes get a glimpse of the best in people. My meditation will focus on how Jospeh and Nicodemus, secret disciples who were afraid to be seen of him in the light of day for what it might cost them, in this moment step up, out of the shadows, and claim his body. While it is true that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, sometimes the darkness is necessary for us to work out what we really believe and where we’re headed and to see sources of light that escaped our attention before. 

This is a wonderful place to lead people in an imaginative prayer exercise beginning with our common experience of having our eyes adjust in a dark room when something unsettles us in the middle of the night and finding all sorts of unexpected light sources that orient us, and leading to a prayerful consideration of what our current worries, struggles, or pain might be revealing to us.  

Prayer of petition

Untiring God,
Your love pursues us:
there is no place in heaven or earth or under the earth
where we can hide from You.

Gather us up in Your arms 
– gently, for some of us are bruised, and broken, and bleeding.
Dispel the shadow of death,
the despair that engulfs us, 
with the bright dawn of Your life.

Look upon us with unconditional grace and mercy;
lead us, slowly, in our yearning
for redemption and a brand new day.

Give us patient faith in times of confusion,
strength to meet hard times to come,
and courage to place our hearts, our lives, our spirits,
into Your hands,
confident in the day
when every word will be spoken in kindness,
every tear shed for joy,
and every ending just another beginning
as the first-light comes
with the blessing of Your own face shining upon us.

TiS 349 In the cross of Christ I glory 

Benediction (and moment of remembering)

This is a memorial prayer (available in Tess Ward’s “Alternative Pastoral Prayers” which sends people away to experience the wait for a new day. Afterwards, opportunity is given to those who would like to light a candle in memory of a loved one for whom the words are equally true.

Long the journey we must now make
for one of our kind has left us and we cannot be the same.
Slow the feet tread moment by moment,
a wonder that morning and evening keep coming round.
But weaving the old story into the new cannot be hurried 
for there are no landmarks and no maps.
We must weep over their bones until we carry them within us.
And when the winter of our grief is past
and the rains are over and gone
we will arise and come away,
put our hand in the hand of life,
see the world afresh with newborn eyes
as the flowers appear on the earth again
and the time of singing is come.

Go gently with God.

Day Sixteen: War Cry

Psalm 125
1 Kings 18:1-18
Ephesians 6:10-17

There are certain passages of Scripture – particularly stories of conquest in the Old Testament – that always summon the words of an old hymn now long out of favour for its militant imagery and  imperialistic associations to mind.

Today’s texts do the same.

As I read of the prophet Elijah’s deliberate encounter with the evil king Ahab after months in hiding, and anticipate that epic showdown between the prophets of Baal and this faithful servant of God, the refrain begins:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I imagine the stamping feet of hundreds of pilgrims heading towards Jerusalem, praying (Psalm 125:4-5),
O Lord, do good to those who are good,
whose hearts are in tune with you.
But banish those who turn to crooked ways,
O Lord.
Take them away with those who do evil,

the rhythm builds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

As I hear the apostle Paul urging the Christians of Ephesus to put on the full armour of God so that they might stand firm in the spiritual battle in which they were engaged against their old paganism with its dark thoughts, dirty talk, and immoral ways, the cry resounds:

Onward, Christian soldiers!
Marching as to war,
With the cross of Jesus
Going on before.

Unpopular, outdated, uncomfortable as the metaphor may be, in this season of watching and waiting for the Christ-King, today’s Scripture (the sword of the Spirit) opens our eyes to what is going on in the vast unknown of the spiritual realm.

There is a spiritual war going on; a showdown between God and Satan in every part of the cosmos, in earth and in heaven; forces of darkness and evil at work in the world even as we celebrate and long for the True Light of Life; an unholy influence evident where dictators usurp power and the human institutions created to protect and preserve life become instruments of corruption and oppression.

What are we to do in the face of such an intimidating foe?

Trust in God,” the Psalmist answers. “Like Mount Zion, nothing can move Him; nor those who are encircled in his arms forever,” (Psalm 125:1-2).

Stand firm in the power of the God-of-Angel-Armies, as Elijah did when he defied Ahab’s accusations: “It’s not I who has caused trouble in Israel,” said Elijah, “but you and your government—you’ve dumped God’s ways and commands and run off after the local gods …” (1 Kings 18:18).

Put on God’s armour and take your stand in God’s strength – the same strength that God used to conquer death and raise Jesus from the grave!

“Truth, righteousness, peace, faith,
and salvation are more than words.
Learn how to apply them …. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon …. prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare …. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out”
(
Ephesians 6:14-18, The Message).   

Today, pray long and hard for brothers and sisters in the faith …

… for those who are going through a particularly tough time …

… for those whose spirits are low or who are struggling with their faith ….

The desolation of death

*Easter Eve: John 19:38-42*

Now there was a garden in the place where he was crucified, and in the garden there was a new tomb in which no one had ever been laid. And so, because it was the Jewish day of Preparation and the tomb was nearby, they laid him there.
Verses 41-42

Darkness has covered the land –

not just darkness in the sense of night
but the darkness of betrayal
the darkness of denial
the darkness of disbelief
the darkness of mockery
the darkness of abandonment
the darkness of human barbarity
the darkness of death.

You know the desolation of this moment:

you who have buried a loved one, a child;
you who have been beaten, ridiculed, bullied, abused;
you who have been surprised by a positive result on an HIV test when you have always been faithful;
you who have watched the tiny bag of possessions – all that you own – taken from you and burned to nothing;
you who have witnessed people run screaming for their lives as bullets riddle their bodies and bombs drop from the sky;
you who have sat in the isolation of a TB ward …

… you ….

As silence settles in the tomb
and darkness and desolation within our hearts
we wait
in anticipation of the morning
and in the assurance that we are not alone.

“If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.”                                                                            Psalm 139:11-12

Last lessons: Love

*Good Friday: John 18:1-19:42*

And again another passage of Scripture says,
“They will look on the one whom they have pierced.”
19:37

Saving love is costly.

People humiliate us; they try to rob us of our dignity, to strip us bare; they make it their mission to alienate us, destroy us, outstrip us.

Yet love forgives.

Jesus prays for his enemies “for they know not what they do.”

So often we know precisely what we’re doing: we deliberately and knowingly deny, betray, turn away …

… yet through love we are forgiven.

And this love assures us of this: that when we recognize our need for conversion, for transformation; when we acknowledge Christ as Lord and Saviour, we are saved from the power of sin and death in this life and claim the promise of newness, the promise of eternity, the promise of Paradise …

… not as some ethereal vision or distant dream. Even today, Jesus makes life more bearable, more beautiful, by connecting us through the cross to one another in a way that comforts and takes responsibility for our Christian brothers and sisters, our fathers and mothers, our sons and daughters, and indeed, for the whole world.

Yet there are times so dark, so difficult that we wonder how we will survive, endure, let alone thrive on life’s abundance.

In the midst of the darkness, Christ cries out that he has carried out pain; that we are not alone. On the cross, love laments so that we can know that we will never be abandoned, never be forsaken.

In fact, in our fragile humanity, in our needs and our longings, God moves us beyond superficial, surface-level relationships to a spirituality that is drenched in the Living Waters of God’s Spirit.

We praise God today that God’s saving love sees what is started through to the end. In a world of half-done things and best intentions, we are moved by the knowledge that the One who began a good work in us is faithful to complete it.

God is not done with our lives until we find our final resting place in God’s heart; until our spirits rest completely and safely in God’s hands.

Are we ready to offer our lives, our hearts, our love, our all to God’s saving love today?

 

In the beginning

A Message for Confirmands based on John 1 and Genesis 1: 15 September 2013

In the beginning …

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.

In the beginning …

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.  Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

In the beginning …

Our God is a God of beginnings.  God is present at every start.

God is there at the moment of conception as two cells come together and merge and divide miraculously into fingers and toes and a beating heart and a mass of grey matter that has potential beyond our imagination and understanding and, even within the womb, a personality that sets each child apart and makes them as unique and special.

God is there at the first moment of independence – the first breath, the first inhalation of life, of Spirit; the first exhalation; the first cry; the first angry shout; the first word; the first step; the first fall.

God is there at the inauguration of our work: the first time we help mom in the kitchen, the first time we take responsibility for a pet, the first time we put on our school uniform, the first test we write a test, the first job we have, the first time we change our mind about what we want to do with our lives, the first time we dream about the mark we want to leave on the world.

God is there at the blast off of love – the first time that someone catches our eye and takes our breath away and becomes the center of our thinking, our being, our doing.  God is there at the first stuttered conversation, the first date, the first kiss, the first beak-up, the first heart ache, the first faint rustling of hope that this is something we should try again.

And God was there the first time that we met together as confirmands.  Some came shyly, some reluctantly, some because their parents insisted that they attend; some because they didn’t want to sit on their own at Children’s Church, some because they saw a gathering of similarly-aged young people and were curious; some because confirmation was the next part of their spiritual journey that they deliberately wanted to go through.

Yet why they came was actually unimportant.  As were their differences in terms of age and personality and levels of maturity and experience of church and understanding of this faith we call Christianity.

What is important is that God was there – in the beginning.

No.

That’s not quite right.

God was there before the beginning.  When things were formless and empty and dark, even then God was there and God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.  And there was Life – in the beginning.

We sometimes forget that because life is not always good or kind or enjoyable.  Sometimes it is scary and messy and incomprehensible and utterly beyond our control.  Sometimes – through our own choices – or through the choices of others, life subjects us to unbearable suffering, excruciating pain, heart-breaking disappointment.  Sometimes it is merely the boredom and the dullness of our daily routine that eats slowly away at our passion, our vision, our courage.  Sometimes we don’t know which way is up, or which road to choose in the multitude of forks that lie ahead of us.

Yet God is there.

In every moment, in every sense, in  every memory, in every thing that sustains life, God is there.

Like the many to whom John refers in his Gospel we do not see that.  Though God is in our lives; though our lives were made through God, we don’t recognize God in every moment: both good and bad; the times of smooth sailing and the encounters with stormy waters.

Yet God has been with us since the beginning.

No – since before the beginning God has been active and moving and present; in you and in me.

As our leadership listened to the testimonies of the confirmands yesterday that is the word that they shared: God is there.  As we have gathered as church, as guild, as community it is a word we experience: God is here.  As our young people have made vows today they have asked, “God walk with me from this day forward” in the faith that God has been with them since the beginning.

And to those who receive Him, to those who believe in His name, God gives the right to be children of God.

To our confirmands this morning I want to say that this is, indeed, just another beginning – a start into what it means to be a child of God.  It is an adventure into discovering your uniqueness, your belovedness, your part beyond this community and within the whole of God’s creation.  You are never alone, never unseen, never unimportant for you are made and named by God and utterly precious in the eyes of God.  God is there – in the moments that spark light and life and energy and passion and in the moments that seem empty and formless and dark.

God is there.  And we, your very extended family, are here too – to nurture and encourage and support you; to point you to the signs of life and light in the moments of darkness; to reflect God’s glory; and to be to you a place in which you can experience God’s grace and truth.

To those of us who are in need of such encouragement and support, who have lost our first love for God, who have wandered away from the paths that lead to life, let me remind you: our God is a God of beginnings and you can begin anew with God in this moment, on this day.